Radiohead blares as young boys in an anonymous Middle Eastern country have their heads shaved for war in the opening minutes of Incendies. It’s a curious but conscious musical selection: Western mope employed to evoke true misery, one that Thom Yorke and the majority of his listeners will thankfully never have to experience first-hand. It also speaks to the violent West-meets-MidEast split that concerns Denis Villeneuve’s drama, semi-freely adapted from Wajdi Mouawad’s play.
Villeneuve jettisons most of the play’s monologues and some of its more extreme asides, but he retains the fragmentation. The story starts proper with Jeanne and Simon (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette), Canadian twins of Arab descent, learning that their recently deceased mother Nawal (Lubna Azabal) has intended them to embark on a wild goose chase. Turns out they have a half-brother of whom they were never aware; they must find him, as well as the father they never met. As the two learn of their profound connection to Middle East hellscapes, we witness the younger Nawal experiencing the tragedies that caused her to suppress her history, even from her children, and be born again in boring Canada.
Mouawad’s play is a slow-burn escalation of horrors that culminates in the kind of revelation that causes audience members to actually and very audibly gasp in unison. Villeneuve’s film version, unsurprisingly Oscar-nominated, adopts an appropriately chilly vibe, one that can cause you to underrate it. As the younger Nawal stumbles from harrowing encounter to even more harrowing encounter—including an intense showstopper involving Christian soldiers massacring a bus— Incendies doesn’t seem all that different from other films centered on Mid-East miserablism. In fact, it’s almost conservative in its dramatics, at least in comparison to Julian Schnabel’s periodically eccentric Miral.
But like the play, the film is designed to open up slowly, with an ending that both puts everything we’ve seen into perspective and serves a considerable sucker punch. It’s the kind of experience that requires a walk-off afterward, allowing viewers to not only get over the shock ending but to also process a film that works better when you’re finally allowed to unravel it in your head.